Friday, February 24, 2012

Whither The Weather

As I watched from the conservatory window, a serious martini in hand, the wind lashed at the pewtered panes while appearing to blow snow in every direction. This had been going on for some time, and was really the first significant storm of the New Year. Consuela, my gardener, was at my side, all excited. She was eager to put into action the new John Deere snowplow I had recently purchased. She would have to wait -- the force of the wind made plowing an exercise in futility.

"How long do you think all this will last?" she asked.

"Don't know," I replied. "That's the thing about weather. You never really know."

Consuela sighed, then said, "Well, I'll just check the machine anyway."

She departed. Now I knew full well that the snowplow was in perfect working order, but a passion for machinery was not to be denied. So off she went, and I was left pondering the nature of weather.

It is, I thought, no accident that weather is a great opening topic for conversation. No one really understands it, and hence every opinion can be considered correct. I mean, nothing will stop a conversation more dead in its tracks than a position put forward by someone who knows what they're talking about. And it is usually safe and not subject to vitriolic argument.

I say 'usually' because there was one time I got into a very awkward situation in a weather discussion.

The issue erupted at a dinner party given by my Chief Financial Officer, best known simply as W.D. There was lots of chit-chat over the bacon-wrapped hot shrimps and toasted Brie with sesame crackers, and all was going well. The problem occurred at the dinner table.

I had been seated next to the Archbishop of the diocese -- W.D., on a pro bono basis, helps with parish accounts -- and, being in good mood, decided not to discuss religion in any form. The weather, I thought. Always non-confrontational.

"Well, Your Grace, a fine sunny day today."

"It was indeed. God favours us every so often."

An inner voice at this point urged silence. But Roman Law states that silence gives consent, as Cicero tells us: silentio te consentire. I simply found it too difficult to remain silent.

"God and the weather," I replied. "A close relationship there. In fact, I would posit that weather started the whole religious thing."

"Your meaning?" replied the Archbishop, suspicion in his voice. My atheistic tendencies were not exactly a secret.

"Just consider. Way back when, the weather would terrify, and it is not difficult to see that the power of storms, floods and fires were under the control of powerful forces, the gods and goddesses of the time. Zeus and his thunderbolts, Loki and his control of fire, Tibetan moon festivals, and, given some research, the minor storm god in Judea that became Judaism. All understandable. And then it all went wrong."

The Archbishop took a good gulp of Chardonnay, then asked, "How so?"

"Well, as science began to explain how storms, floods and fire were all interconnected with weather patterns, you would expect that belief in imaginary beings would fade. It didn't. There was simply too much to be gained -- power, prestige, even money -- in keeping the whole thing going. Not only that, but various beliefs began to clash, and are still clashing. For instance, the Middle East --"

But the Archbishop had had enough, and went to W.D. to make his excuses, citing an urgent diocese issue in need of resolution. W.D. rolled his eyes at me, but I simply shrugged. It was his seating arrangement, not mine.

So once again I was confronted with the fact that emotions and ideas follow beliefs, and that religion will be with us for some time. Beliefs do not change quickly, and there are sometimes storms we

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Salad Days

Yes, a bit late with this entry, but got sidetracked -- a lovely 'winterlude' at the Emp's northern island cottage. Readers may recall certain previous events at that venue, described in the entry "The Lost Spike" last October.

The same cast was present this time: Bohdan, the Manager of my sugar beet plantation in Ukraine; Sir Peter Crapp, a colleague in The Trade, and of course the Emp, who hosts (magnificently) these gatherings. What was unusual about this get-together was the incredibly wide range of topics under discussion, all under the rubric of --
Bohdan's salad.

Now it must be instantly admitted that this salad was very good indeed. A wonderful mix of garden leafage, delicately dressed with tender care. The problem was over-emphasis. At dinner that night, superb stuffed spareribs prepared by the Emp, seventeen and a half references were made by Bohdan to the glories of the salad. I say seventeen and a half, because the Emp had had enough, and ordered the references stopped before the eighteenth could be uttered.

Doesn't,however, take away from the fact that it was an excellent salad.

But this writing is really about discussion items. Sir Peter, for instance, brought forward two interesting 'p' words: 'pilated' (as in the woodpecker) and 'pizzle'. This latter term was unknown to the Emp and Bohdan, and were somewhat shaken to learn exactly what it was -- the penis of a bull. Its use as a whip didn't disturb, but when I mentioned that roasted pizzle was considered a delicacy in some cultures, that was a bit too much for the Emp, who fled to the kitchen and began preparing little meatballs for a hors oeuvre. I found his choice an interesting one, and began to connect....[Don't go there. Ed.] And before leaving 'p' words, I gained some praise from the Emp by unintentionally finding certain pliers that had been searched for long and hard. Moreover, all assisted in a successful endeavour to restore a much-treasured pot to its original state. On such things happiness rests.

The next day, after mentioning how good his salad was as a breakfast item, Bohdan then expounded on an article he was reading on Syria, and the grim behaviour of Bashar al-Assad and his attack on his own citizenry. What was of interest was Mrs. Assad. Her religious sect was one of the groups being shelled or bombed, and this behaviour on the part of her husband surely must put a wee strain on the relationship. Or so one might think.

Dinner at the Inn across from the island, a treat from Sir Peter, was excellent, although the Emp was not ecstatic, having ordered the wrong thing. All others were entirely satisfied with their servings, giving the lie to the adage connecting marriage with restaurant orders, to wit: "You are always satisfied with your choice, until you see what the other guy ordered."

I could go on about conversations on I-Pod apps, the aggression of blue jays, comedic films, and Ontario's flirting with a Grecian fiscal model, but enough is enough, and a good time was had by all. The Emp deserves much credit.

And the salad really was very good.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Providing Cheer

To London, to offer sympathy to Sir Harry, and attempt to cheer him up -- a daunting task at the best of times. I stayed at the Dorchester in Park Lane, and after my visit was looking forward to those excellent Cornish scallops the hotel specializes in.

Sir Harry was recuperating in a safe house provided by MI6, the address of which...well, forget about that. I entered his room, and there he was, propped up in bed surrounded by pillows everywhere.

"You're looking well," he said.

My God, a compliment. Rarer than hen's teeth. Mind you, I was wearing one of my son Sebastian's best creations, a black woolen sheath that fit perfectly.

"Thank you," I replied. "How are the ribs?"

"Better. But still bloody painful."

"I don't doubt it. Had a similar injury myself."

"Do tell."

So I did. The injury occurred during my time at an English Prep school while playing field hockey. A strapping Scottish lass sent me crashing to the ground, breaking three of my ribs in the process. On the way down, I managed to hook her knees, and she wound up with a broken leg. Since then, however, we have become the best of friends. The whole incident prompted her to gain an interest in bones, and she now heads up an orthopaedic clinic in Edinburgh.

So girl's field hockey goes. The men play it relatively sanely, being used to hard contact sports, and, more importantly, not wearing short skirts. (Think about that for a moment). And a curved stick in the hands of an irate female can do vicious things....but I digress.

Sir Harry had fallen asleep. Well, I thought, that anecdote sure cheered him up.

I made to go, when his voice rang out.

"Just dozing. You do go on, you know. I want your opinion on this material. Send it over before you leave. Still at the Dorchester?"

"Yes," I said, taking the file.

"Too many Cornish scallops will cause indigestion, you know."

"Shut up. What's in this stuff anyway?"

"Read, think, write, then get back to me. Now I want to rest."

"It's been a lovely visit."

Sir Harry snorted, and closed his eyes.

Back at the hotel, I opened the material, and read. Fascinating. The Chinese apparently were getting tired of constantly paying off kidnappers who were preying on the myriad of Chinese workers, and now and then executing them, in dicey parts of the world. They were requesting help in going after the perpetrators, freeing any nationals at risk, and making sure that said perpetrators never were in a position to act again. They actually used a phrase that has now become sort of a cliche, to wit: "Exterminate with extreme prejudice." Obviously, some member of the inner circle was reading far too much Robert Ludlum.

This was interesting news. Yes, Britain had forces skilled in what the Chinese were requesting, and could assist. In return, a similar favour could be requested from China. For instance, a marked improvement in British finances. David Cameron would be over the moon, the City would be happy, and I would have achieved my objective.

Sir Harry would be immensely cheered up.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Solidarity Not So Forever

[Ed. note: I have been given to understand that some readers, wishing to comment, have found Google's g-mail function to be cumbersome to navigate. To make life easier in this regard, comments can be sent directly to Lady Simone at I will ensure that they are forwarded to her Ladyship for any action she may deign to take.]

Skimming the local newspaper, I noticed that a garbage strike looms. While the Manor is not affected -- I have an arrangement with Don Guido's Waste Management Company --nevertheless the article did prompt some thoughts on the role of unions.

Now I should like to say at the outset that unions at one time were critical in providing wages a family could actually live on, as well as safety guarantees and benefits. It was, to put it mildly, a difficult struggle. Even a cursory reading of such material as George Orwell's Down The Mine, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or John Galsworthy's play Strife makes this point inarguable.

However, things change. I describe three types of negotiation. The first two involve only a company and a union. The third is somewhat different.

The Good

Here Management and Union are honest with each other. Management shares a true account of the firm's financial position, the Union verifies this account, and an agreement is reached. When the company is doing well, the Union can legitimately bargain for a better contract. If things are not going so well, this would negatively affect a future contract. The key here is honesty. (Germany is particularly adept at this approach).

The Bad

Neither Management nor Union wish to "show their hand", as it were, and the bargaining process tends to resemble a game of Texas Hold Em poker. Bluffing and histrionics are common, and a strike or lockout becomes a distinct possibility. (This is particularly so in the U.S.)

The Ugly

Where things get really nasty are those negotiations between government and public service unions. Nasty, because there are now three, not two, groups involved, the third group being the public at large. This group is wholly innocent in terms of setting bargaining positions, yet, given a strike or lockout, bears the brunt of the pain caused by a service withdrawal. (A world-wide problem.)

The answer lies in either deeming the public service 'essential', or putting in place a system of binding arbitration, with representatives from the union, the government, and a third representative acceptable to each.

The above seems the fair way to go. After all, there is nothing in the Bible, the Qur'an, the Vedas, or any other scripture about powerful imaginary friends that says life is fair. It is up to us to put the fairness in.

So let's get on with it.